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Were council's library closure proposals legal?

Council sidesteps questions over whether it would have been in breach of its statutory duty

Dan Cooper

Dan Cooper

dan.cooper@newburynews.co.uk

Contact:

01635 886632

Fury over plans to close Hungerford Library

IT is still no clearer as to whether West Berkshire Council’s original proposals to close eight of the district’s nine libraries was legal.

Under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, local councils have a statutory duty to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’.

The council last week admitted it had to take advice from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) during the public consultation period due to the “vague nature” of the Act.

It said the DCMS advised it would have to complete a Needs Assessment before pressing ahead with its proposals.

However, the council had previously said that it had “always been aware of its statutory duty” and that discussions with the DCMS hadn’t revealed anything it didn’t already know.

During a public meeting last Thursday, Hilary Cole, the councillor responsible for libraries, was asked whether she thought the original proposals would have been in breach of its duty.

On one occasion the council’s opposition spokesman for finance, Lee Dillon, asked the same question twice because the first response “didn’t feel like an answer”.

Mr Dillon said: “My question was quite specific. Did you as portfolio holder believe that the council was at risk of failing in its statutory duty when it put forward the proposals?”

Ms Cole replied: “I believed that we would work under financial constraints that we had and therefore the decision to put forward the proposals we did were made within those financial constraints.”

She had previously admitted the council had “taken a risk” by only proposing to leave one library open, but had been given “no choice” due to having its government funding cut.

Ms Cole challenged one campaigner’s claim that the council had acted illegally, but refused to make public the correspondence between itself and the DCMS when asked.

Antoinette Solera, from Pangbourne, said: “In the public interest will you release text of advice from council into the public domain so that the council tax payers of West Berkshire can fully understand why this council believes that its original proposal to close eight out of nine libraries was legal?”

Ms Cole replied: “I don't propose to release that information into the public domain at the moment and I challenge your statement about the legality of what we are doing.”

In a report published this month, the council’s library services manager Mike Brooks said it would be “failing in its statutory duty” if it were to close eight libraries without first completing a Needs Assessment.

The report stated: “Discussions with the DCMS revealed the need for a detailed Needs Assessment to inform any changes to the way libraries operate.

“The council will fail in its equality duty, and also statutory duty, to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service under the Public Libraries and Museums Act if it proceeds with a major reduction in its libraries service without due process.

“I recommend the proposal be reconsidered so that libraries are retained, pending the outcome and recommendations of an independent Needs Assessment.”

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